Traditional Conservative vs Right-wing: an example

This is a distinction that has fascinated me lately. I first thought about it when I read Henry Fairlie’s description of a traditional conservative in Britain. I realized that his view of a traditional conservative is what many right-wingers would call a ‘liberal’ or even a ‘socialist’.

Here is the example I just noticed (from the comment section of the article, The Future of America’s Working Class by Joel Kotkin):

pablo on Wed, 04/20/2011 – It might be cliche to sound the call of the “rich get richer while the poor get poorer,” or it might be anti-conservative to suggest that there’s a policy agenda that should speak to mobility. But, having spent time in places like Bangladesh, Indonesia, or Mexico, I can attest to the value of social mobility. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the notion of “freedom” to which we vigilantly cling as conservatives is best reflected by social mobility, or “opportunity.” The freedom to take risks and strive for a greater future, the freedom to take risks, fall flat on one’s face, and be able to pick themselves up again. Each of these freedoms is dependent on access to capital, healthcare, and education, and a social net to some degree – making the each of these – capital, health, education, and welfare – fundamentally conservative values, in as much as they support the most conservative value of all – freedom of social mobility.

A traditional conservative will support any social institution (public or private) that promotes and maintains social order and public good. A traditional conservative will emphasize the social/societal (both social responsibility and social benefit) over the isolated individual.

A right-winger, on the other hand, will do the opposite. However, in America, it’s confusing. During good times, many social conservatives will be drawn to right-wing rhetoric in blaming the poor and disenfranchised. But during bad times, many social conservatives begin to join the ranks of the poor and disenfranchised, and all of a sudden they remember the value of traditional conservatism. So, right-wing is the attitude a social conservative has toward other people’s problems and social conservative is the attitude a social conservative has toward their own problems.

The distinction here is the ideology of fiscal conservatism, ideology that too often contradicts the reality of implemented policies. Fiscal conservatives make big promises about a meritocratic society, but they refuse to take responsibility when their promises turn out to be pipe dreams. Of course, those making the promises are rarely the same people who suffer the consequences for their failure.

As another commenter noted:

theodion on Sun, 03/20/2011 – The most essential guarantees employed to justify capitalism are that your young children will have a much better life than you do, and in President Kennedy’s well known words “a rising tide lifts all boats” that means all of us benefits from the accumulation of capital funds. These guarantees ring hollow in a period of time in which the relative situation of the working people of the US is declining and its ruling class is in a position to appropriate a growing share of the nationwide revenue. My conclusion to what has occurred is that the connection among productivity and wages has been damaged.

For decades, promises were made. And it took decades to discover how false those promises were.

Here are some other comments that further the discussion:

 cosmopolitanprovincial on Thu, 06/03/2010 – However, your focus should have been on the government-directed economic policies of the past 30 years rather than wholly blaming the welfare state. When maufacturing started to disappear from this country the govt. line was: “let the factory fail, after all it’s a free market.” Contrast this with the recent multi-billion pound bailout of the banking and financial service sector, which ordinary working people are now going to have to pay back in taxes for the next couple of decades. When a recession affected the bankers and stockbrokers, suddenly the “free market” disappeared and state intervention was the order of the day. This speaks volumes about where govt. priorities lay.

This is a classic case of being anti-welfare only when it affects the poor. Yet when the rich or corporations need welfare, then it is happily dished out to the tune of billions.
 – – – 
John Mountfort on Thu, 06/03/2010 – Absolutely correct. This nonsense of blaming The Welfare State for the problem of the growing underclass is based on a ridiculous assumption that human beings are so plastic in their capacities that they can be expected to respond to every change, however traumatic or rapid… and if they don’t, it’s because of some imaginary failing, like a Welfare State that just sucked the virtue out of them by making life too easy. But out virtues are themselves a product of the most stubborn aspect of human nature: our desire to have things remain the same. One would think conservatives would understand that… but I guess that’s another reason why we have hypocrisy.

cosmopolitanprovincial on Thu, 06/03/2010 – Like someone else pointed out, nearly every northern European country has a much more generous welfare system than Britain but they don’t have the same social problems.

Another point is that Britain is the country which has followed the “American model” more than any other nation in Europe. Sometimes we “go further” than the US: for example, nearly all state schools here are soon going to be under the governance of private organisations, many of them profit-making corporations (some of them from America). Our postal service is also going to be privatised. Other European countries who have not followed this model so slavishly have not experienced the same crime levels or social problems that we in the UK have. Please bear in mind I am not blaming America for this, it is the decisions of UK politicians who are responsible. But the point is, whatever the problems are, it isn’t because there isn’t enough ‘capitalism’ in the UK. We are a very similar economy to the US, often with identical brands and stores available (McD/Subway/KFC etc. in every town in the land).

[ . . . ] Like John, I agree that it is disingenuous to blame the underclass for this crisis: it is not they who decided that their source of jobs was systematically wiped out or that houses would become unaffordable or that the only economy left was based around shopping and drinking. It is a complex issue, based around globalisation (where factory jobs are basically in China or India rather than Britain), and the main focus of the political elites being on the middle-classes.

Public Good vs Splintered Society (pt 2)

This is a continuation of my thoughts from my previous post. I won’t summarize my thoughts from that post. So you probably should read it first to understand the context of what I’m writing about below.

 – – – 

I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t directly speaking of racism. There is something more fundamental that can manifest as racism but not necessarily. It’s related to xenophobia. More generally, it’s related to the conservative predisposition of fearing that which is different or new.

This type of fear doesn’t inevitably manifest in negative ways. Sometimes there are good reasons to be mistrusting or cautious… and sometimes not. Also, everyone including liberals are prone to extreme wariness and even fear at times, but research shows that conservatives are even more prone and that right-wingers are so prone they live in almost constant state of mistrust and suspicion.

This is important because it goes beyond fear. If you’re afraid of something, you probably won’t deal with it well because fear constricts your options of how to respond. A conservative who is afraid of the strange and new probably won’t respond constructively to the strange and new. Is it any surprise that right-wingers who mistrust the government also are very bad at governing? Is it any surprise that research shows that those who believe in conspiracy theories admit that they would conspire if given the opportunity? Is it any surprise that conservatives who dislike compromise seek to attack anyone who wants compromise and then blame the other party for their failure to submit to the conservatives’ position?

Liberals are the only demographic that has a majority support for compromise. This is very problematic for a democracy where compromise is absolutely necessary in order for the government to function and for different groups to be fairly represented by the supposedly representative government. In an increasingly diverse society, this is increasingly problematic. Conservatives will only ever agree to policies when those policies are in their favor which means when they have the power to enforce policies in their favor.

Well off white conservatives have always become anxious whenever new groups asserted their right to be fairly represented.

It happened when the second wave of Scots-Irish immigrants arrived. It happened with the Chinese and German immigrants later on. It happened when slaves were freed and when women got the vote. It happened with the Catholics and Jews who sought political positions. It happened with the Japanese during WWII. And now it’s happening with Hispanics and Arabs.

It doesn’t matter how many generations these people lived here. All that matters is that they were and in some cases still are perceived as being different.

Racism is often the end result of this xenophobia, but it is’t the fundamental issue. In America, there is this ideal of diverse people working together. Not just conforming. Some conservatives and right-wingers say other groups should conform to the WASP culture. It’s fine to be a Catholic or Muslim just as long as y0u keep it to yourself. It’s fine to be gay or an atheist as long as you don’t speak about it openly.

The WASPs will claim that their culture is and should be the dominant culture.

They will rationalize this in saying that this should be so because they are the majority. Well, once upon a time Native Americans were the majority before European diseases and genocide wiped out most of their population. In Texas, Spanish-speaking Hispanics are the majority. Should all Texans conform to that majority? Why not? Shouldn’t Hispanics be fairly represented?

When their majority argument is challenged, WASPs will simply say their culture should be dominant because it’s always been dominant. So what this dominance was created and maintained for centuries through horrific violence and oppression. Might makes right, after all.

In the end, as a good liberal, I don’t want to blame anyone, not even WASPs. I’m tired of the blame game entirely, no matter who it’s directed at. If you’re a genuine conservative, sure feel free be cautious about the changes happening in society. But enough with the fear-mongering and race-baiting. Don’t use bigotry as an excuse to hate the democratic government. Don’t promote class war to push away the ladder once you’ve made it to the top. Don’t distort Jesus’ message of love to defend a system of injustice and suffering. Conservatism has a healthy role to play, but radical conservatism is unhelpful, dangerous even.

Americans have proven to be able to do great things when we all work together. Republicans, Libertarians and Tea Partiers, I ask this of you: Please quit attacking what makes America great simply for reasons of your personal agenda. America isn’t just about the upper classes or whites or Christians. It never was and never will be.

During the Populist Era, Northerners and Southerners worked together to fight those seeking to take over the government and oppress the lower classes. In some of the first labor unions, blacks and whites worked together.

Earlier last century, conservatives didn’t hate the government but actually sought to create a government that was truly for and by the people. The Republican Party used to be the party of progressivism and moderation, the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Republican Party helped create the infrastructure (the interstate highway system, the national parks system, etc) of America through progressive taxation including high taxes on the rich. The Republicans, instead of fighting their own dark fantasies about ‘welfare queens’, used to fight the KKK.

The Progressive Era was also a time when liberalism reigned. Liberalism reigned all the way through Nixon’s early political career. Some of the greatest progressives were Republicans. Eisenhower used the military to enforce desegregation. Nixon campaigned on helping blacks and later helped pass the EPA. It was a time when people believed that America was a great nation and that it was the responsibility of the government along with the support of the public to do great things. The government used to send men into space and used to build great technology such as the internet. The Progressive Era created high-paying jobs that were secure and had pensions. Manufacturing jobs were kept in America and Americans were proud of our growing economy. Everyone benefited. It was a good society where literally everyone’s boat was lifted. Progressives gave a generation affordable higher education and created the middle class.

This isn’t patriotic propaganda. This isn’t just history. We are still benefiting from the sacrifices our grandparents and great grandparents made to build this great society. For decades, we’ve been living off the work of past generations while allowing the infrastructure crumble around us. It’s become an age of hyper-individualism and endless wars, in fact wars that are often against the American people. Instead of wars on drugs, why don’t we have a war on political corruption? Instead of tough on crime against the poor and minorities, why don’t we have tough on crime against the corporatists and bankers who nearly destroyed our economy?

It’s not too late. We can take responsibility as generations past did. We could create a great society once again.

At times, it seems so simple. Maybe it is as simple as our collectively creating what we collectively hope for or what we colletively fear. However, when digging deeper, there are all kinds of factors.

I was reading the book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State by Andrew Gelman. The following passage caught my attention last night while I was thinking about why conservatives seem to trust less or value less the ideal of a shared community, i.e., community beyond their own in-group.

Looking at people who moved from red (strongly Republican) states: those who move to other red states are poorer, those who move to purple states are slightly richer (on average), and those who move to blue states are richest. Among those who moved from purple (battleground) states, we see the same pattern: the poorer go to red states, the richer go to blue states. Looking at those who moved from blue (strongly Democratic) states, we again see that the poorest went to red states and the richest went to other blue states. In fact, people who moved from one blue state to another are in the richest category, on average. This does not demonstrate that people move to states or regions that are more culturally compatible to them, but the data are consistent with that possibility. A related idea is that higher earners are moving to richer states because of the economic opportunities available for educated professionals in these places.

One link between economics, voting, and social attitudes has been noticed by journalist Steve Sailer, who hypothesizes that rich, coastal states now favor the Democrats because of increasing house prices, which reduces affordable family formation (marriage and childbearing), in turn limiting the electoral appeal of Republican candidates running on family values. Sailer attributes some of this home price difference to what he calls the Dirt Gap—coastal and Great Lakes cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are bounded by water, which limits their potential for growth, as compared to inland cities such as Dallas or Atlanta: “The supply of suburban land available for development is larger in Red State cities, so the price is lower.” The Republicans do better among married voters, who are more likely to end up in more affordable states that also happen to be more culturally conservative.

This reminded me of the distinction I noticed between more conservative Southern states where people value family as community (Scots-Irish fundamentalism and kinship ties) and more liberal Midwestern states where people value community as family (Catholic and Quaker focus on community-building: schools, hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters, etc).

As the above passage describes, working class and lower middle class conservatives who vote Republican tend to live in or move to Republican states for a simple reason. Unlike poor social conservatives who vote Democratic, these slightly more well off conservatives have enough money to move and yet not enough money to move to the more wealthy communities. So they go to places where there are suburbs which means places with vast open land to build suburbs. The Midwest doesn’t have such vast unused space and maybe that is why the value of community has survived in the Midwest whereas it hasn’t survived as much in Republican strongholds.

The thing about suburbs is that they’ve tended to be very lacking in traditional community structure. People tend to work far away from where they live. Suburbs often aren’t designed for walking and often don’t have parks or neighborhood schools. They are the antithesis of community and at the same time they are the destination of socially conservative Republicans, especially those who are white (which is most socially conservative Republicans). Suburbs tend to lack multiculturalism and racial diversity which might be another thing that attracts socially conservative Republicans.

This cuts to the core.

Research has found that those who grow up with multiculturalism and racial diversity will as adults be more socially liberal. It’s probably also relates to the research that shows liberals tended to have many friends in their childhoods.

As such, the type of communities we create (rural farming, cities, metropolises, suburbia, etc) creates a particular mindset that allows certain ways of seeing community and disallows others. Community doesn’t just happen. It is created. And if we don’t create it consciously, it might not take very positive forms. We’ve destroyed the natural order (i.e., hunter-gatherer communities) upon which human nature evolved. Our society has become dysfunctional because it’s gone so far beyond our origins as a species. Returning to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle isn’t possible without the complete destruction of civilization and a mass die-off of most of the world’s population. A ‘natural’ (i.e., unplanned) community isn’t a choice that we have at this point. Even conservatives in refusing to invest in the larger community are creating a particular type of community.

From an anecdotal perspective, Garrison Keillor describes (in his book Homegrown Democrat) the difference between liberal city-dwellers and conservative suburbanites:

“[ . . . ] there is a high value placed on public services. If you call 911 in St. Paul, the cops or the EMTs will arrive within four minutes. In the Republican suburbs, where No New Taxes is the beginning and end of politics and emergency services depend on volunteers, the response time can be anywhere between ten or fifteen and thirty minutes.”

Keillor is basically what has in the past been called a Sewer Socialist. In an earlier time in Milwaukee, there were socialists in political positions. They were of the pragmatic (i.e., non-ideological) sort that is common in the Midwest. Like Keillor, they were proud to have some of the best public services around at that time. On a practical level, socialism just means that you care about your neighbor rather than seeing community as merely a collection of self-focused individuals.

Many Americans have so completely forgotten what community is. When they see community, they have a fearful knee-jerk response: Socialism! Communism! Oh no, those who care about the public good are going to destroy our society!

 – – –

There is one factor that explains the impossibility of discussing all of this fairly and openly. I recently came across research about the backfire effect.

Basically, the backfire effect is when someone becomes stronger in their beliefs (more unquestioningly dogmatic) when they are confronted by facts that contradict or disprove or bring doubt to their beliefs. It intuitively makes sense, although I’m sure there are complex psychological mechanisms behind it.

What is relevant to my discussion is the demographic most prone to the backfire effect. Do I even need to say it? Unsurprisingly, conservatives are more likely to become more dogmatic when challenged even when or especially when the facts are against them. Liberals, on the other hand, don’t necessarily change their beliefs with new facts; it’s just that they’re less likely to become even stronger in their beliefs which seems to imply that liberals perceive facts as being less threatening.

This puts liberals in an almost impossible situation. Is it any wonder that no matter how much liberals seek to compromise they rarely ever get any compromise in return from conservatives. Liberals love compromise, a weakness and a strength. It’s because liberals love to compromise that they are able to live in multicultural, multi-racial cities. Study after study shows liberals love anything new and different, including ‘foreigners’. But the typical conservative response to anything unusual, even rotting fruit as shown in one study, is to respond with disgust.

Love of compromise is one ‘failing’ of liberalism. The other ‘failing’ is love of knowledge. Even when a fact disagrees with a liberal position, a liberal is more likely to welcome the new info, even if just for reasons of intellectual curiosity. Most (by which I mean the vast majority of) academics, scientists, writers and journalists are self-identified liberals. It’s a combination of liberals loving knowledge and the love of knowledge inducing a liberal mindset. Sadly, the more conservative someone is the less they probably love knowledge, and studies have shown right-wingers are prone to outright anti-intellectualism.

So, what is a poor liberal to do?

The answer isn’t to give up on compromise and knowledge. The real problem is that many liberals don’t understand the conservative mindset. The dogmatic tendency of conservatives and right-wingers correlates to their religiosity. I suspect that religiosity explains one other thing. A fact by itself is less convincing to a conservative. What convinces a conservative the most is anecdotal evidence and stories. Essentially, the Bible is just a bunch of anecdotes and stories, an anecdote being a story is considered real. Also, the evangelical tradition is all about personal experience of God or Holy Spirit which is the ultimate anecdotal evidence.

Everyone loves stories, but I think conservatives put a special importance on stories in a way liberals don’t. To a liberal, a story is a story. To a conservative, a story is reality. The story of Jesus is real, despite the lack of historical fact and even despite the internal contradictions of the New Testament. The most powerful story is the story that is seen as fact. Such a story is especially powerful if it actually is based on fact. It’s not that conservatives hate knowledge, but between a fact and a story conservatives will prefer the latter.

This is why conspiracy theories and global warming denialism are so convincing to conservatives and right-wingers. A conspiracy theory is a story and global warming denialism is often couched in terms of conspiracy theory. It just doesn’t matter to many conservatives that it’s a fact that most climatologists agree that human-caused global warming is real. It doesn’t matter because climatologists aren’t trained, as preachers are trained, in telling a good story.

Liberals love story as well. I do think stories are more powerful than anything else. Stories are what cultures are built upon. Liberals fail when they forget this. As George Lakoff explained:

“Progressives too often fail to clearly state the moral principles behind the American tradition. Our arguments often sound like an abstract defense of distant “government” rather than a celebration of our people, our public, and the moral views that have defined our tradition and the real human beings who work every day to carry them out.”

The root word for ‘science’ means to split or dissect. The root word for ‘art’ means to put together or join. This might be why knowledge and story so often conflict, but they don’t have to. Knowledge and story can work together. Old stories can be taken apart so as to create new stories that bring together. In a multicultural society as we live in, we can take the pieces of our cultural heritage and form something greater than the sum of the parts.

Story can be the bridge that brings liberals and conservatives together. In the past, America had a story about a shared society and that story inspired many generations of people in the first half or so of the 20th century. The greatest story is that which is lived through collective enactment. I’ve often wondered what story (i.e., myth) we are collectively enacting.

The dangerous part is unconsciously enacting a story. When that happens, a society is controlled by the story, trapped in a narrative. We can be mere characters in someone else’s story, such as an ancient story from an ancient book, or we can be storytellers. As William Blake said,

“Invent your own mythology or be slave to another man’s.”

To translate that into the terms of this discussion: Invent our own cultural narrative or be slave to the narrative of another culture. Invent our collective sense of community or be slave to the broken remnants of the past.

If we react out of fear, we will create a society driven by fear. Such a fearful society will result in dysfunctional communities, isolated communities set against one another, broken communities where past traumas are never healed. Only an act of creation can heal. Only retelling the story of community can heal a community.

 – – – 

George Lakoff summarized well the situation we collectively face:

Democracy, in the American tradition, has been defined by a simple morality: We Americans care about our fellow citizens, we act on that care and build trust, and we do our best not just for ourselves, our families, our friends and our neighbors, but for our country, for each other, for people we have never met and never will meet.

“American democracy has, over our history, called upon citizens to share an equal responsibility to work together to secure a safe and prosperous future for their families and nation. This is the central work of our democracy and it is a public enterprise. This, the American Dream, is the dream of a functioning democracy.

“Public refers to people, acting together to provide what we all depend on: roads and bridges, public buildings and parks, a system of education, a strong economic system, a system of law and order with a fair and effective judiciary, dams, sewers, and a power grid, agencies to monitor disease, weather, food safety, clean air and water, and on and on. That is what we, as a people who care about each other, have given to each other.

“Only a free people can take up the necessary tasks, and only a people who trust and care for one another can get the job done. The American Dream is built upon mutual care and trust. 

“Our tradition has not just been to share the tasks, but to share the tools as well. We come together to provide a quality education for our children. We come together to protect each other’s health and safety. We come together to build a strong, open and honest financial system. We come together to protect the institutions of democracy to guarantee that all who share in these responsibilities have an equal voice in deciding how they will be met.

“What this means is that there is no such thing as a “self-made” man or woman or business. No one makes it on their own. No matter how much wealth you amass, you depend on all the things the public has provided — roads, water, law enforcement, fire and disease protection, food safety, government research, and all the rest. The only question is whether you have paid your fair share for what we all have given you.

“We are now faced with a nontraditional, radical view of “democracy” coming from the Republican party. It says democracy means that nobody should care about anybody else, that democracy means only personal responsibility, not responsibility for anyone else, and it means no trust. If America accepts this radical view of democracy, then all that we have given each other in the past under traditional democracy will be lost: all that we have called public. Public roads and bridges: gone. Public schools: gone. Publicly funded police and firemen: gone. Safe food, air, and water: gone. Public health: gone. Everything that made America America, the crucial things that you and your family and your friends have taken for granted: gone.

The democracy of care, shared responsibility and trust is the democracy of the American Dream. The democracy of no care, no shared responsibility, and no trust has produced the American Nightmare that so many of our citizens are living through.

Public Good vs Splintered Society

I was talking to a conservative about local politics and economics. This helped me to clarify my own liberal views about this liberal community.

I’ve lived in this relatively small city (Iowa City, IA) for most of my life and I’ve worked in many jobs here, including the last 10 years spent working for the city. I’ve seen the town change and I’ve studied the town’s history. To put it simply, I’m ‘invested’ in this town. This town is my childhood home. This town is the only community I’ve ever felt a part of.

I’m not sure how typical this city is, but it’s a good example of a planned city. It originally was intended to be the capital of Iowa. They even went so far as to build the capital building around which much of the downtown formed, but the capital was later moved to a more central location in the state. Iowa City wouldn’t exist as we now know it if not for that initial taxpayer funded investment. Instead of a capital, we got the University of Iowa which also has brought in massive state funding.

However, this city doesn’t survive on just the taxpayers kindness. There are two hospitals, a Catholic hospital and the University hospital, the latter being one of the best hospitals in the country. There is also a thriving downtown with hundreds of businesses, although it’s of course changed much over time.

Also, Iowa City has many parks, recreation centers, public parking ramps, a very nice public library (plus the university has numerous libraries all open to the public), and a very nice pedestrian mall (where many of the businesses are located). At one end of the pedestrian mall, there is a hotel and a conference center, both having been built on publicly owned land (the hotel being built on the very public street that was closed when it was turned into a pedestrian mall. The pedestrian mall was built and the entire downtown renovated in the 1970s with public funding (some combination of federal and local). A mall was also built near the pedestrian mall and was planned by the city government as part of the downtown renovation. The mall now only is half stores and half offices for the university (besides it now only halfway serving as a mall, it seems to be thriving as well).

Near downtown, there is a historic district which still has the original brick roads. The city government has only approved buildings in that area to fit in with the historical architecture. There is a genuine care (by the public and by the local government) about this town’s history… along with care about its future.

All of these public investments have paid off massively. Iowa City has often been listed in various top 10 lists of cities to live in. It’s even a favorite destination for the elderly and the disabled because of our fine public services, including a large senior center downtown. And, of course, people from all over the country and all over the world come to Iowa City to either attend or to work at the university. Because of the university, we have the oldest writers’ workshop in the world and have been given the title of the first UNESCO City of Literature in the US. The pedestrian mall, the downtown in general, the various parks and recreation centers; all of these are extremely popular destinations. During the warm times of the year, there are bands that play in the pedestrian mall every week and there are several festivals. Between the university, the city and the senior center, there are always events, activities and groups available for people of all ages and interests. We have a fairly popular public access channel with tons of locally produced shows.

There is a strong sense of community in Iowa City, but community doesn’t happen on accident. It must be created through civic action, through public participation and, yes, through a willingness of taxpaying citizens to support it all. People are willing to pay for it because they believe in the vision of a thriving community. We have community theatres, including a theatre building that was saved through public donations. Furthermore, there are many churches in Iowa City that are strongly community-oriented. This town is a place where even the most destitute will find their basic needs met.

Community is an odd thing. It’s hard to measure its value. The only aspect that can indirectly be measured is land value which is mostly created through public investment in infrastructure (road building and maintenance, plowing, water, emergency services, etc). Without such public infrastructure, land has little economic value in and of itself. But even the land value doesn’t begin to capture the value of community. As social animals, we collectively are the value of a community. We swim in and breathe community like fish in water. Community is often easier to notice when it’s gone.

“Not much that we do in our personal lives makes much economic sense, just as most things we do for money make no sense in personal terms.”
~ A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen, p. 138

For some strange reason, most American ‘conservatives’ no longer seem to believe in community. Yes, they like community, but they don’t like what is required to create community. They’ll argue that governments can’t create jobs. If that was so, Iowa City wouldn’t have a thriving downtown with a strong downtown business association. Maybe it’s a midwest thing. Iowa City is a very liberal city, but many people on the city council are business owners. Even business owners want public investment. The nice downtown wouldn’t exist without public investment. Iowa City is an example of what Republicans think is impossible.

Before Iowa City’s renovation, the downtown was becoming rundown. There had been political upheaval with riots downtown. There were many old buildings that weren’t being maintained. There were empty gravel lots all over. The downtown wasn’t thriving and many citizens were afraid to go downtown. It would have been easy to let the downtown turn into a slum or simply die as has been allowed to happen in many cities. It would have been easy to have privatized all the parks and public services. It would have been easy to lower the taxes on the rich using the rhetoric that this would increase job creation and trickle down. But if that had been done, the downtown would probably still be rundown.

It wasn’t just taxpayer money that saved downtown Iowa City. The money could have been wasted, even with good intentions. What makes Iowa City unique is that it’s filled with liberals (and traditional conservatives) who actually believe in community and are willing to personally invest in building community. When the downtown was renovated, someone or some group obviously had great vision and it was far from utopian. This vision was very practical in its implementation and in its results.

 – – – 

So, why don’t conservative Republicans have faith in community in the way liberals do. I’ve written about this before, but it continually bewilders me.

Why is it that Republicans only trust the government when they are in power?

Why is it that conservatives have so little faith in what makes America strong?

If conservatives truly believed communism was inferior, why did they have such immense faith that it was probable communism might succeed?

“The core presumption of Soviet communism was that people would work hard for the well-being of the state, even with no personal payoff. That always seemed unlikely to me–in fact so unlikely that I always believed that Soviet communism was destined to fall of its own weight. The communist conspiracies were inconsequential because the system was certain to fail. I was then struck by the odd perception that the people most paranoid about the rise of this doomed ideology were the conservatives who should have been the most confident of the ultimate success of the American economic experiment. They were instead the least confident and the most fearful of being overwhelmed by the Soviet system.

“When communism fell at last I was not surprised because it seemed to me always destined to fall. Why was my liberal mind more confident of our system than the conservatives that constantly pronounced us doomed to fall to the evil Soviets?”

This demonstrates my point. Liberals have less fear of enemies because liberals are more confident in American society, in the American public, in the American economy, in American communities, and yes even in the American government. Liberals simply believe in America. Full stop.

So, why don’t conservative Republicans have an equal confidence?

I’ve recently become more clear in a particular insight. Republican conservatives, for the most part, aren’t traditional conservatives. The American political tradition originates from the British political tradition. The British conservatives were the the traditionally conservative Tories; and the Tories defended the British government. Since the American revolutionaries were fighting the British government, by default they were fighting against the conservatism of their day, the Tories. Henry Fairlie clearly differentiated between traditional conservatives and modern conservatives:

“The characteristics of the Tory, which separate him from the conservative, may briefly be summarized: 1.) his almost passionate belief in strong central government, which has of course always been the symbolic importance to him of the monarchy; 2.) his detestation of “capitalism,” of what Cardinal Newman and T.S. Eliot called “usury,” of which he himself calls “trade”; and 3.) his trust in the ultimate good sense of the People, whom he capitalizes in this way, because the People are a real entity to him, beyond social and economic divisions, and whom he believes can be appealed to, and relied on, as the final repository of decency in a free nation. The King and the People, against the barons and the capitalists, is the motto of the Tory.”

A traditional conservative doesn’t hate his own government. The government is a social institution which maintains social order. There is nothing a traditional conservative cares about more than social order and there is no more basic manifestation of social order than government.

This was further clarified by another discussion I was having with the same conservative that got me thinking about all of this. In the second discussion, I mentioned the phenomenon of the black demographic (which applies to some other minority demographics such as Latinos).

Blacks mostly vote for Democrats. In fact, they are the most loyal base of the Democratic Party. This is interesting as they are conservative rather than liberal. Democratic-voting blacks are even more socially conservative and more conservatively religious than even the average Republican. The division between the two parties isn’t liberal vs conservative. Rather, it’s traditional conservatives (aligned with liberals) vs modern conservatives (aligned with right-wingers). There are still some traditional conservatives left in the GOP, but not many. They are the last remnants of the Eisenhower Republicans. Most people today label traditional conservatives as ‘moderate conservatives’ or even simply as ‘moderates’ because they are, after all, moderate compared to right-wingers.

As I’m bewildered by the right-wingers who call themselves conservatives, the conservative I was speaking with was bewildered by these minorities who are so traditionally conservative and yet vote Democratic. He genuinely thinks they are brainwashed. No, they are just religious. Upper class and upper middle class white people (the base of the Republican Party) simply don’t understand traditional conservatism, especially as it relates to religion. To a poor and disenfranchised person (i.e., minorities), religion plays a much more pivotal role. If you are a well off white person, you grow up with lots of advantages and privileges which makes life easy. The well off white person is less obviously reliant on community and so they can focus on a more individualistic worldview. Most black Americans don’t have such luxury. For them, religion is their community in a world that is often against them. Religion isn’t merely an individual choice, isn’t merely a nice moral group to belong to. For minorities, religion is about survival.

This is why blacks (and latinos) mostly vote Democratic. Liberals only make up a small portion of Democratic voters, far from being a majority. However, both conservative blacks and liberal whites are aligned in defending traditional conservatism. The only difference is that the former wants more involvement from churches. Minorities want churches to be allowed to accept government funding in order to participate in the improvement of their own communities. This love and appreciation of community (i.e., it takes a village to raise a child) is a shared ideal of conservative blacks and liberal whites.

Democrats only seem predominantly liberal as compared to Republican right-wing values and rhetoric. What many call liberalism, especially fiscal liberalism, is in many ways the same thing as traditional conservatism. Because right-wing Republicans have largely abandoned traditional conservatism, liberals have sought to defend it against those very same right-wingers. Right-wingers have increasingly become viciously critical of traditional conservatism. There is an obvious race element here. Most Republican right-wingers are upper class whites and most Democratic traditional conservatives are poor minorities.

I think race is the key issue. There is still some overt racism, but mostly it’s not racism as we normally think of it. Research shows racial bias still exists and that it’s often institutionalized. It’s not individuals who typically hold racist beliefs, rather what some call racialism. More generally, it’s a sense of xenophobia.

Let me shift gears for a moment and then I’ll return to the racialism/xenophobia issue.

Americans once achieved great things as liberals still envision. The interstate highway system which allowed the post-WWII industrialized economy to boom. The national park system which might be the best in the world. The publicly funded higher education that almost singlehandedly created the middle class by encouraging social mobility. America wasn’t made great through privatization and tax cuts. During the Great Depression, the federal government created jobs (building the court houses and city halls we still have today, building the trails and picnic shelters we still use today, etc). We now have higher unemployment than even during the Great Depression. In response, our present federal government (along with local governments) have decided to cut government jobs and cut any services for those who have their jobs cut. This is what is called cutting off your nose to spite your face.

When Americans believe in and value community, they build community. When they don’t, they destroy community. Social mobility once was increasing in America and now it’s decreasing. Economic equality once was increasing in America and now it’s decreasing. Both directions are choices we collectively make through public policies and public investments (or lack thereof).

Right now, Germans are doing great things in their society as Americans once did. I brought this subject up with the same conservative with whom I discussed these other topics. His response went to the core of the problem. He pointed out that Germany has a more demographically consistent population, i.e., less multiculturalism and less racial diversity. This is true. And this is how racialism/xenophobia ties back in.

The Progressive Era and the post-WWII period were defined by three factors. Immigration was low, taxes were high, and liberalism reigned almost entirely unchallenged. It was the mirror of what America has been in recent decades (and it has similarities to what Germany is now).  It was also a time of cultural conformity because of the uber-patriotism during the two world wars. It was a weird mixture. Blacks were expected to know their place and yet prosperity gave a freedom for liberals and traditional conservatives to fight for civil rights. Whites dominated culture. It felt safe to whites to fight for the rights of blacks. But later on when blacks began fighting for their own rights it was seen as dangerous, especially by right-wingers.

Anyway, what my conservative discussion partner was saying was that Germany’s present success isn’t possible in the US because US no longer has a conformist culture. To be cynical (maybe overly cynical, I don’t know), what this translates to is that upper class white Christians (meaning the present conservative Republican demographic) are only willing to invest in the common good when majority of the population is like them or is forced through conformity to be like them. Most upper class white Christians if they were being honest wouldn’t disagree with my assessment, although they would state it differently.

Here is where my liberal attitude kicks in. Change isn’t something to be afraid of. Or, rather, change is only made fearful through resistance. Conservatives end up creating their own worst enemies. Even if conformity is always good, that is all the more reason to invest in the public good. If you want other groups to conform, you should encourage them to participate in society. Attacking Muslims and blaming minorities will simply splinter society. Wars on drugs and poverty, Culture and class wars will simply create a society of conflict and mistrust. Conservatives face the dilemma of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

As a liberal, I’d point out that even change passes. Yes, whites are becoming a minority. Yes, atheists and the non-religious are a growing demographic. Yes, change is happening. But change has always been happening in America. To mistrust change is to mistrust what America stands for. The previous 1950s status quo was built on massive changes that happened in the late 19th century. Now we face the results of massive changes that occurred with the late 20th century. But, as liberals understand, a new status quo will inevitably form. Society has to once in a while stop to catch its breath before moving on.

This doesn’t mean, however, that change can be stopped. Taking a snapshot of one moment in history such as the 1950s will offer a very distorted vision. But even if you admire the 1950s, then seek to re-create the positive conditions that made that era great: massive taxpayer investments in the public good (instead of massive taxpayer investments in the military-industrial complex, in building more prisons, in oil subsidies, etc).

We as a society have a choice. We can continue to invest in the future (our children’s and grandchildren’s future). We can continue to support the social compact America was built upon. And we can continue to believe in the American Dream. Or we can isolate ourselves and hope someone else will solve all of the problems that we collectively face.

Other Americans being different than you (whether black or Muslim or whatever) is no excuse. To believe in America is to believe in Americans, all Americans. Just realize that to not support a democratic government is to not support America. A representative democracy must represent, fairly and equally, all Americans and not just a single group seeking to maintain it’s power and privilege. As a liberal, I have faith that America is even stronger than the cynicism and political opportunism of even the worse racist right-wingers. As Americans, we will overcome the difficulties that face us, but there are many difficulties that could be entirely avoided if we were willing to work together.